How to Change Bad Habits in Dogs (Hint: It’s all about timing)
The potential to change an emotional response (excitement, fear, anxiety) and thereby change the consequent behavior (barking, biting, jumping) rests on A SINGLE MOMENT. Imagine a person walking a dog. Imagine that this dog is a dog-reactive-dog, he barks at any dog that comes within 25 feet. Imagine that on their walk the dog notices a dog 50 feet in the distance. The dog’s ears perk up, his body becomes tense, the distance narrows to 45 feet, the dog pulls into the leash, to 35 feet, the dog begins to whine with nervous excitement, and then 25 feet and the dog jumps to the end of the leash and starts barking uncontrollably. The person REACTS by scolding his dog for barking “bad dog,” the dog cowers, presses his ears back and the person incorrectly assumes, “that’ll teach him not to bark at the next dog.”
Behavior modification relies on the ability to PREDICT future behavior, intervene and redirect BEFORE the dog is able to engage in an undesirable behavior. Once a dog has the opportunity to bark, jump, lunge, bite etc. – it’s more about management, than training. As the person and the dog close the distance between 50 feet to 25 feet there is a build up of emotion (excitement, fear, anxiety) that results in an undesirable behavior (pulling, whining and barking). Let’s rewind: a person is walking a dog. The dog notices another dog 50 feet in the distance, the dog’s ears perk. PAUSE. That’s the moment. That’s the trainable moment. At this point we have the opportunity to intervene and redirect the dog’s focus to produce an alternate emotional response. With repetition and consistent intervention, we can condition/train the dog to react calmly and attentively when in the presence of another dog by prompting the dog to develop new cognitive and behavioral patterns.
The difference between a trainer and the average pet owner is that the trainer is pro-active, and the average pet owner is re-active. A reactive response is usually born of frustration, and can make the behavior worse by increasing the dog’s stress levels. Behavior modification is about identifying and/or creating trainable moments, and using this moment to reprogram or counter-condition the dog’s underlying emotional response to one that is conducive to calm, attentive, relaxed behavior.
Your Training Toolbox: Food Reinforcement vs. Correction Collars: Food reinforcement is often times the most effective way to modify aggressive, excited, fearful or anxious behavior in dogs. This is because it is a vital component to every organism’s existence. It has the unequivocal power to change brain chemistry, create new neural pathways and manipulate physiological responses (ie. heart and respiratory rate). Punishment (yelling, prong collars, choke/ slip collars, e-collars) can suppress symptoms (stops barking, whining, jumping, reactivity), but it masks the underlying problem (stress and anxiety). This can have negative consequences on the mental and emotional health of your dog and can actually be dangerous when attempting to “correct” aggressive behavior. People will frequently punish dogs for barking, growling, snarling, air snapping which can effectively teach dogs to suppress warning signs – it WILL NOT resolve the underlying stress and anxiety that feeds aggressive behavior. Dogs that are punished for displaying warning signs of aggression can become “silent attackers” – those that bite without warning.